When you think of industries that could use a sustainability upgrade, the construction sector might not immediately spring to mind — but it actually holds some of the greatest potential for change. Sustainable construction best practices include optimizing for energy efficiency, conserving water, reducing waste, using low-impact materials, and emphasizing durability. Here’s a closer look at these five principles of sustainable construction.
1. Improving Energy Efficiency
Energy consumption is one of the biggest factors influencing a building’s sustainability.
Designers often use Energy Star, a rating system that gives buildings energy efficiency scores, to gauge their overall sustainability. In 2022, U.S. apartments got an average score of 89.8 out of 100, while retail stores were less efficient at just 81.4 points. How can the construction industry improve these metrics?
Designers should incorporate more sustainable construction best practices into their projects. For example, integrating smart thermostats — which can adjust the temperature based on occupancy levels and past thermostat use — into buildings helps manage electricity use. Other factors that improve energy efficiency include multi-paned windows, weather stripping around windows and doors, thick insulation, and smart bulbs.
Installing solar panels is another excellent way to reduce energy consumption and lower electricity bills. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, commercial buildings that use solar panels consume up to 70% less electricity than conventional structures.
2. Conserving Water
Among sustainable construction best practices, water conservation ranks highly. The building process is a great time to incorporate water-saving features into a structure.
For example, contractors can install low-flow sinks, toilets, and showers in bathrooms. Toilets can come with buttons for bigger or smaller flushes, allowing people to use only as much water as they need.
Another useful technology is smart leak detectors. These IoT-connected devices inside pipes notify occupants when they detect a leak. Some even automatically shut off the water in broken pipes, preventing long-term, wasteful leaks that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Additionally, builders can install efficient fixtures and appliances like dishwashers, HVAC units, ice makers, washing machines, and ventilation systems. Water metering systems can give occupants an idea of how much water they’re using and how to cut back.
3. Emphasizing Durability
Building durable structures is one of the most important principles of sustainable construction. The longer a building lasts, the fewer materials will be needed to repair or replace it. Buildings and the construction industry are currently the world’s biggest raw materials consumers, accounting for 25% to 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.
Many contractors have an incentive to complete projects as fast as possible. That leads to buying weaker, less-expensive materials that manufacturers can mass produce. A renewed focus on high-quality supplies will go a long way toward sustainability.
In the wake of climate change, another factor building designers must account for is extreme weather. Structures should be able to withstand local climate-related disasters like wildfires, floods, hurricanes, or tornados. For example, building homes on stilts in tropical areas mitigates flood damage, while wraparound stone porches protect homes in fire-prone regions.
4. Reducing Waste
Lowering waste production is among the most crucial principles of sustainable construction. The construction sector generates 30% of global refuse, with experts estimating over 35% of it ends up in landfills. Considering how hard it is to obtain many of these materials — such as through mining, quarrying, and cutting down trees — it’s in everyone’s best interest to conserve as many materials as possible.
To reduce the amount of garbage and unusable materials a construction site generates, builders should strive to choose products with minimal packaging. They should also be careful to order the right amount of materials, get the right-sized materials for each project, and plan ahead before getting to work. The old adage about measuring twice and cutting once definitely applies.
When demolishing a building, contractors should look for ways to salvage as many materials as they can. Using modular building techniques can make structures easier to take apart when they reach the end of their life cycle, freeing up supplies for future projects.
5. Building With Low-Impact Materials
It’s possible to combine both durability and low climate impact when purchasing construction supplies. Building with reclaimed materials — like wood, steel, and nails from unused buildings — shortens the supply chain and helps meet the need for raw materials. Using repurposed supplies also diverts them from landfills and reduces the need for timber harvesting, mining, and drilling for oil.
Additionally, builders can choose new building materials with lower environmental footprints. Low-carbon bricks, wood, bamboo, green concrete, and green ceramic tiles — made partly of waste materials like glass and textiles — are good choices.
Principles of Sustainable Construction Best Practices
The construction sector is currently one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Thankfully, that also means implementing sustainable construction best practices will have a huge impact when it comes to building a greener world.
The principles of sustainable construction encompass many different areas. If builders incorporate even just one of them, they will positively affect the whole planet — starting with the people who live there.